NEWS: January-May 2020
May 7, 2020

In the News: Artistic Director Loretta Greco is leaving San Fancisco's Magic Theatre this month. wrote, "Greco says she has loved her time with Magic. Sam Shepard might be remembered as building the theatre, but Greco will be remembered for inviting everyone in. Greco had been aware of the theatre because of Shepard, who she calls 'one of our greatest writers, period, the end,' and getting to work with him there was a highlight for her. He was constantly searching, she says, writing for six decades, from when he was a teenager to a few days before he died in 2017."

"Greco keeps some of his short stories by her favorite chair - his work is like a balm for her. 'I was a complete idiot when I first met him,' she recalls. 'I was so nervous that I drove up Franklin the wrong way with Sam in the car. It was hilarious because he was calming me down, and I drive down Franklin every day. It wasn’t a new road for me - it was that I had my hero next to me.'"

Sam with Greco in 2013:

I came across a few other remembrances about Sam

Former Artistic Director Larry Eilenberg:
"Sam Shepard’s relationship to the Magic Theatre now enters the history books side-by-side with Chekhov and the Moscow Art Theatre, O’Neill and the Provincetown Players, Odets and the Group Theatre. While in residence during the 1970s and early 80s, here in San Francisco, Sam bridged the gap between American realism and European absurdism with a voice that was all his own... One of the things I most admired about working with Sam was his insistence upon the primacy of the word. And his words will last, I trust, as long as there are actors and audiences."

Actress Jessi Campbell:
"Sam has broken my heart open a thousand times. It's hard to say exactly what it is, but it's something about his endless searching, his insatiable hunger, his inner turmoil, his relentlessness... His broken men and broken-hearted women... His cowboys, his fathers, his dreamers, his lovers, his love for the open road... Nothing has taught me more about the beauty and the pain of being human. His work has transformed me again and again. He is my favorite. Always will be."

Actor Rod Gnapp:
"Working on Sam Shepard's plays at the Magic, have been the most rewarding and challenging theatrical experiences of my life. My brushes with him and his plays, have made me grapple with the best and the worst of myself. I feel really blessed to have crossed paths with him while working on 'The Late Henry Moss'; and been lucky enough to be in the room and watch him do what he loved... Making theatre out of nothing but his own driven desire. Sam smiling and holding me by the shoulder as we toasted a whiskey to celebrate the wild ride was a moment I will always cherish."

Director/writer/performer Sean San José:
"He made the world so real through his unreal way of approaching it - my whole head opened up seeing his play and I have never found anything that comes close to trying to show the world we live in as well as live theatre."

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During most of Sam's photo shoots at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, he wore sunglasses so these two photos are unique and capture his extraordinary looks at mid-life.

April 16, 2020

In 1987, an off-Broadway play made waves when a Hollywood producer saw it and quickly turned it into the movie STEEL MAGNOLIAS. It has become one of the most beloved movies of all time, cluttered with terrific one-liners and heartfelt moments. Portraying the six Southern belles were Julia Roberts, Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah and Olympia Dukakis. They embodied sass, stubbornness, loyalty and a do-anything-for-a-friend mentality.

Initial reviews were mixed. Some critics found it weepy but ultimately winning; others thought the film’s brassy sentimentality undermined its real emotional impact. And some took issue with its portrayals of men. Nonetheless, it became 1989′s 14th highest-grossing film. It was based on a true story. The screenwriter Robert Harling’s sister died of diabetic complications after giving birth in the 1980s, shortly before Harling composed the original play and the film script.

Co-star Dolly Parton told the press that Sam, her on-screen husband, reminded her of her real-life husband Carl Dean. She said not only do the two look alike, but they're both strong men of few words. She said, "I much prefer a quiet man. I'm loud enough for the two of us." The two men also shared a fear of flying. At the time of Sam's death, Dolly said, "I was so sorry to hear of Sam’s passing. What a nice man and what a great actor. I was honored to have him play my husband in 'Steel Magnolias.' Rest in peace, my friend."

I'm including a movie clip that shows a great scene from the film with Dolly as the vivacious hairdresser named Truvy who runs a home-based beauty salon and Sam in the role of her husband Spud, described as a quiet, moody man. They're preparing to attend the funeral of their friend Shelby. Here's the link.

As in many films, Sam became a recognizable figure in America cinema, often portraying the font of mature and untamed masculine sexuality. Here's a movie still from the film:

Perhaps the most intriguing criticism of the film dealt with whether it did or didn’t have a man problem. Movie critic Hal Erickson wrote, "The film stumbles a bit in its depiction of the male characters as fools and deadheads." Both Hal Lipper of the St. Petersburg Times and New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby lamented the film’s decision to have actors play the leading ladies’ husbands, sons, and boyfriends onscreen at all. In the stage show, the male characters only existed offstage. Roger Ebert noted that the men "do not amount to much in this movie" but concluded it was "a woman's picture". He added, "I doubt if any six real women could be funny and sarcastic so consistently but I love the way these women talk, especially when Parton observes: ‘What separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize.'”

March 30, 2020

I recently came across another book on Sam called "Rebelul Rigorii Mortale", by Romanian writer Alexandra Ares. It was originally published in 2004 but then later expanded in a 2018 edition by Aldine Publishing House. The title translates to "A Rebel of Rigoris Mortis". It won the award for the best drama book from the Union of Writers in Bucharest.

Here is a quote from her book:

"Intuitive and prolific writer, Shepard has improvised theater replicas just as jazzmen improvise musical lines, but he was brilliant in these insights. He rewrote very little, astonishing his friends. The former colleague from the Lower East Side room told how Sam bought a box of paper, went into the room, started beating the car and came out a few hours later with a new piece. […] Shepard reinvented American theatrical language at a time when innovation came from Europe, brought an influx of energy, mystery, revolt and magic into American drama so deeply realistic and created a mythology of the present, starting from the idea. that 'the old God is too far' and 'no longer represents our suffering.' ...Alexandra Ares

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The movie page for DEFENSELESS (1991), has been added today. Besides Sam, it starred Barbara Hershey, J.T. Walsh and Mary Beth Hurt and was directed by Martin Campbell. I'd like to write some positive comments but truth be told, the film was a flop. According to Jonathan Rosenbaum of Chicago Reader, it was "a watchable but instantly forgettable mystery thriller... Sam Shepard does his usual poker-faced bit as the police detective assigned to catch the killer." Ouch! And from another critic, "As a homicide detective named Beutel, Sam Shepard is the only low-key player in the ensemble, so lanky and laconic you could picture him splitting rails in his spare time." And Candice Russell of the Sun-Sentinel writes, "Merely mediocre, Shepard chews gum and looks half-interested, perhaps because he'd rather be riding horses than making movies." Yowser! Okay, you're catching on.

I didn't come across any production notes or interesting stories, but the following excerpt is from a letter from Sam written in Virginia to Johnny Dark on October 3, 1989 - "I have to return to L.A. on the 14th thru the 16th of this month for a re-shoot of Defenseless. I'll be staying at the Four Seasons Hotel on Doheny - if you want to give me a call down there. I really don't want to leave the farm now that Fall has arrived but I guess I have to go. It would be great to see you if you happen to find yourself in L.A. around then."

I will say that the best thing to come out of this film is this photo which I used on the home page. It actually looks like a movie still from "The Right Stuff". Handsome pic!

March 27, 2020

I've added the play page for 1994's SIMPATICO. It was Sam's first full-length play in ten years and was originally targeted for Broadway with a cast that included Ed Harris, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Frederick Forrest and Beverly D'Angelo. However, the $800,000 production budget couldn't be met or as Sam put it, "the deep pockets didn't present themselves". Plans were then made to stage it at the Off Broadway Public Theater. Sam directed with Ed Harris and Beverly D'Angelo remaining with new cast members Fred Ward, Marcia Gay Harden and James Gammon.

The story took place in the world of thoroughbred horse racing with Sam describing it as being "about the rivalry between two close friends who have known each other their whole lives, and involves women and horses, gambling, deceit, envy, jealousy, rage: the stuff I can't help writing about."

Sam with Lange and son Walker at the "Simpatico" preview show on November 5, 1994 at the Joseph Papp Theatre.

"Simpatico" received generally favorable reviews. Vincent Canby of the New York Times called it one of the best plays of the year, and it sold out its initial run but did not hold enough promise to move to Broadway. Five years later, it was adapted for the screen with Nick Nolte, Jeff Bridges, Sharon Stone, Catherine Keener and Albert Finney. Matthew Watchus directed and wrote the screenplay but it was a struggle adapting it. One critic wrote, "Where the play is stripped to bare essentials, the film invokes flashbacks to fill in the backstory, adds multiple locations, and introduces other diversions that slowly strangle the subtle points Shepard achieves in his original."

Certainly, we know that Sam had firsthand knowledge here as far as horses. Hotwalker, rodeo rider, farm manager, team roper, polo player and foxhunting and cutting horses - there's wasn't much that Sam hadn't done with horses. Then in 1987, he became a Thoroughbred breeder. He recalled, "I had a farm, and I'd never been able to afford Thoroughbreds. But I've always been fascinated by pedigrees, by how you plan and actually breed these things. Now I had the chance." In a 2007 interview, he said, "I plan all the matings and never talk to bloodstock agents. I spend endless hours poring over pedigrees, but some of the best horses I've bred came from instinct."

Forever the cowboy, both on and off screen, Sam was often photographed in his western gear. This new photo on the right, which was taken in 2005, is from the National Portrait Galley of the Smithsonian Institution, a gift from Bill and Sally Wittliff. The photographer is Matt Lankes, who also took the first photo, which was previously posted and featured in the April 2006 issue of Cowboys & Indians.

Previously I have posted this famous Annie Leibovitz photo, but always in black and white. This is the original color photo from the December 1984 issue of Vanity Fair.

March 23, 2020

In these coronavirus times of being housebound, I've begun adding missing film pages to several of my web sites. Today I give you FRANCES, the film that introduced Sam to an actress called Jessica Lange, who birthed two of his three children.

The 1982 biopic chronicles the life of actress Frances Farmer from the 1930s to the 1950s beginning with her high school days as a rebellious student in Seattle. She wrote an essay questioning God, which outraged folks as well as her visit to Moscow. The publicity plus her talent led to a successful Broadway and Hollywood career, followed by a mental breakdown and many years in mental institutions. Her domineering mother, outstandingly portrayed by Kim Stanley, was instrumental in creating instability and dysfunction in her daughter's life.

Sam plays Harry York, a fictional person based on a political radical named Stewart Jacobson who claimed to have been one of Farmer's lovers, though close friends of the star denied his even knowing her. Just how a movie can claim to be historically accurate when the protagonist's main love interest was an invention by the writers is a question the filmmakers never address, although on the DVD commentary director Graeme Clifford states, "We didn't want to nickel and dime people to death with facts." He also went on to remark that Lange hadn’t had to "act" for the role in Frances. "She just let out all the stuff she usually represses." My sentiments exactly. When you look at this photo of Frances Farmer, you can see a strong resemblance to Lange.

The film opened to mixed reviews with complaints focused on the story's inaccuracies, such as the fictionalized lobotomy and the above mentioned Harry York. In his review, Roger Ebert writes, "There are a few problems with the film's structure, most of them centering around an incompletely explained friend of Farmer's, played by Sam Shepard as a guy who seems to drift into her life whenever the plot requires him." As to my own reaction, I kept questioning their strange relationship.

Interesting that several actresses were considered for the lead role including Jane Fonda, Sally Field, Natalie Wood, Susan Sarandon and Meryl Streep. Though Lange received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, it was Meryl Streep who swept up that Oscar for her role in "Sophie's Choice". But all was not lost because Lange's role in "Tootsie" garnered her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, often referred to as her consolation prize.

Personally, I thought the most pleasurable offering from the film (besides the onscreen presence of Sam) was its soundtrack by John Barry. The music is about as hauntingly beautiful as any ever written by this talented composer. You can listen to the soundtrack at this link.

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As reported on January 29, a limited edition of "Sam Shepard: New Mexico" was released this month by Lawless Media. The 105-page book, priced at $75, is a quirky ode to Sam by Galisteo publisher John Miller. The limited-edition book gathers starkly powerful (meandering and sorrowful, funny, frank and intimate) passages from Sam's work with a focus on those that touch on the Land of Enchantment, where he lived off and on beginning in the 1980s. This special volume pairs Sam's writings with acclaimed artist Ed Ruscha during their separate times in New Mexico. You can read an excerpt called "Pink Adobe".

February 1, 2020

I used to live and work in Boston so I'm always connected to the city's cultural events. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts will be screening DAYS OF HEAVEN on February 28 and 29 in the Harry and Mildred Remis Auditorium. The museum describes it as "a celebrated example of the power of subtlety. Malick’s painterly use of light and atmosphere has moved critics throughout the decades to describe Days of Heaven as one of the most beautiful films ever made." I ask you who can't help but fall in love with the looks of this rich and stoically handsome, but nameless farmer.

Jean-Claude van Itallie, playwright, performer, and teacher, once said, "Many of us Greenwich Village playwrights were gay. Sam was flamboyantly, abundantly straight. His ebullient sexuality was charismatic—you could see it sparkling in his eyes, and it later helped make him a movie star. Ellen Stewart, La MaMa herself, the living, beating heart of Off-Off-Broadway, once remarked that Sam was like 'juicy Lucy,' as Ellen called the erotic urge, flowing plentifully and creatively."

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Here are a couple new photos of Sam at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin meeting with young playwrights back in 2009.

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Magic Theatre founder John Lion wrote a 1984 article for American Theatre in which he gave some background on the poster and book cover for Fool for Love featuring Elvis. Apparently, the famous candid photo was taken on June 30, 1956 in Richmond, VA by Alfred Wertheimer. Lion describes the photo - "On a glossy background and filling the cover page, in a dark jacket and perfectly coiffed conk, was Elvis Presley in an early ’56 photo. Tight in on him, nose to nose, her bare shoulder slightly pressed forward in anticipation, with a slightly skewed bouffant and a diamond broach earring, was a beautiful unidentified blond. And what was joining the two figures, in the space between their faces, catching a little light and subtly glistening? Why, their tongues!"

"Believe it or not, when the show went from Magic Theatre to Circle Repertory Company in New York, and the image was again used on the poster, several shops refused to sell it, although The New York Times had no problem printing the image."

Lion continues, "Elvis Presley and Sam Shepard signify a change in the structure of American society that cuts much deeper than critical catch phrases like 'the birth of rock and roll' or the 'death of the American West.' To both Presley and Shepard is attached the idea of 'the noble savage.' They both apparently came from nowhere, reached the top of their professions with no formal training, rapidly became the stuff of popular myth. But beneath each persona lies an objective, calculating artist who has basically altered the way we look at things."

January 29, 2020

Lawless Media of Galisteo, New Mexico has announced the upcoming publication of a new book by John Miller on Sam and artist Ed Ruscha.

The synopsis reads:

In 1963, artist Ed Ruscha photographed filling stations from Oklahoma to LA. He published them in Twentysix Gasoline Stations, generally considered the first modern artist's book.

Ruscha took 60 photographs which he edited to 26. The unpublished images from New Mexico are reproduced here, from the artist's original negatives.

Sam Shepard, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, author, screenwriter, actor, and director had a deep bond with Santa Fe, where he lived in the 1980s and from 2010-2015.

But Shepard had some nomad in him, and beginning with Motel Chronicles in 1982, he spent much time crisscrossing the deserts of New Mexico.

As Johnny Dark said: "He lived in Santa Fe, but he also lived in hotels and on the road... He might have been running away or he might have been running toward something."

Twenty years earlier, traveling from Oklahoma to LA, the artist Ed Ruscha traversed the same territory, creating ghostly images of New Mexico gas stations.

Now, in this special volume, these two restless storytellers combine their talents to paint a unique portrait of New Mexico.

The description does not mention the number of pages nor the size of the book, but it appears to be more of a coffee table book with black and white photos by Ruscha and quotes from Sam's writings about New Mexico.

A sample is given from Sam's "Motel Chronicles":

In Santa Fe they stopped long enough to gas up and then headed north toward Chimayo.

The sweet smell of juniper blew through the open windows.
Crows floated above the highway scanning for dead lizards and rabbits.

The Black Mesa appeared on their left and they all agreed that they understood why the Indians considered it sacred.

But none of them actually explained why they thought that.

The event date for the book is listed as Saturday, March 14, 2020 at 3:00 pm at Bookworks, 4022 Rio Grande Blvd NW in Albuquerque, NM.

January 12, 2020

Netflix documentary IT TAKES A LUNATIC profiles Wynn Handman, who’s hailed as "the keystone of American theatre." He founded the highly influential American Place Theatre in New York City, directing a number of plays and he taught acting classes for more than 50 years. His former students such as Richard Gere, James Caan, Michael Douglas, and Frank Langella reflect on his influence on their careers as well as the theater community through his desire to give opportunities to upcoming talent. You'll also spot Sam Shepard in this film, which is currently available thru Netflix. Shepard productions in the American Place's early years included 1967's "La Turista," and "Killer's Head".

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And speaking of "Killer's Head", the play has been announced in an upcoming double bill by Odyssey Theatre Ensemble in Los Angeles.  The second half is his 1969 one-act "The Unseen Hand" - that is part of the Odyssey's 50th Anniversary "Circa '69" Season of significant and adventurous plays that premiered around the time of the company's inception. Check for dates running from January 25 thru March 8 at the theatre web site.